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Covering Iran: Irish journo recounts a few battles

05 Mar 2009 15:51No Comments
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Gareth Smyth was based in Tehran for the Financial Times for four years. He filed this story for the British Journalism Review in 2007.

By GARETH SMYTH

Shortly before I left Tehran, an Iranian official asked me if I had faced any difficulties under the relatively new Government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not really, I replied. Given we were about to eat lunch, it didn't seem appropriate to mention my detention earlier in the year for four days by the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards after I had entered a national park without permission. The British Embassy had used their negotiations during my detention - along with that of freelance Angus McDowall - as a dry run for their handling, a month afterwards, of the arrest of 15 British sailors and marines in the sea border of Iraq and Iran. In different circumstances, I might have been the story myself, a hapless victim of the brutal Iranian authorities. Reporting from Iran can be compared to walking on eggs while being jostled by burly people. Sooner or later you are going to fall over and you have to hope you don't end up in an omelette.

One of the problems with the trip to the national park to the south east of Namak Lake in central Iran was that the relevant authority - the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, aka Ershad - had apparently not received my email saying I was going. This was a new rule introduced earlier this year: Ershad had to be informed about any leisure trip, in addition to the longstanding requirement that the ministry give permission for any work trip outside Tehran and for any interview with an Iranian official. So, back in the vicinity of Namak Lake, a vast salt flat, I didn't suspect that asking directions from an "environmental station" in the midst of the rocks and sand dunes would lead to four days' questioning by Revolutionary Guard intelligence in Garmsar, a small town just north of the vast desert and the nearest place of any size to the home village of President Ahmadinejad.

But with security on higher alert because of the U.S. arms build-up in the Persian Gulf, even an expanse of desert without missile silos or manoeuvres can be considered of military value. Hence our detention in a sports complex that was hardly the Ritz, although Angus and I found a good place in Garmsar to eat grilled liver for breakfast, and did watch the Arsenal v Chelsea league cup final from our bunks. Western readers and listeners are unaware of the constraints under which their information on Iran has been produced. While the number of resident reporters in the country is low and falling, many outlets retain the dateline by sending visiting hacks who hire quasi-official minders through Ershad. Even the resident reporter finds it hard to gain access to anyone, or any place, remotely near a real story, although to admit this to editors is dangerous when they are desperate to know what is going on in the "axis of evil".

The yellow badges myth

The Iran reporter also faces the vocal power of the huge number of "Iran experts" that inhabit think-tanks, campaign groups and even newspapers in the West. One group, the Mujahidin-e Khalq, a cult previously allied to Saddam Hussein, is resented by every other Iranian I have met. Others are former supporters of the Shah, overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. There are "experts" who have never been to Iran. But they can all be skillful in meeting the agendas of Western politicians and news organisations. Back in May 2006, Amir Taheri - a contributor to the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab paper published in London - wrote in the Canadian National Post that Iran had passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow badges on their clothes. This was quickly picked up by UPI and widely posted on websites. Chuck Schumer, a U.S. senator, called the Iranian regime "lunatic" and "pernicious" and White House spokesman Sean McCormack spoke of "clear echoes of Germany under Hitler". The story was untrue and could easily have been checked in Tehran, where Maurice Motammed, the Jews' deputy in Parliament, called the report "a mischievous act, a fresh means of pressure against the Iranian Government."

Jews wearing badges is not an isolated example of misinformation. Early this year a long-time American opponent of the Islamic Republic persuaded some media outlets that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, was dead or dying. And graphic reports about the British sailors - one described them as incarcerated in dank cells near my favourite park in north Tehran, with mobs outside shouting: "Death to Britain" - were filed from Israel and supposedly based on telephone calls to "sources" among the Revolutionary Guards. Although absurd, such fictions fed appetites in London to know "what's really going on?" and "what's going to happen next?" in Tehran. "Make a few calls and find out if Osama bin Laden's son is in town. Find out when the sailors are going to be released. Surely the regime is in panic because of banking sanctions?" All this makes your minor scoops and understandings - like knowing the British Embassy was using your own case as a model to get their sailors back - look very minor indeed.

I was used to struggling for stories. I was one of the last reporters to do vox pops in Baghdad as the kidnappings accelerated in June 2004 and I'd done my time with Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains in the early 1990s. My car had turned over three times on the day Baghdad fell, and I still filed. Iraq was a gold mine when you could get out and about. Perhaps a certain chaos is good for journalism. But if America's lack of any agenda for post-Saddam Iraq created a fertile field for reporting, no easy pickings have emerged from the careful security that has enabled the Islamic Republic to resist the Americans for 28 years. Getting a grip on Iran requires years of patience and false starts, lots of "softly, softly." It requires traveling to avoid confusing the country (bigger than Iraq, Turkey, Syria combined) with the elite of northern Tehran. It means keeping an open mind and a permanent skepticism.

But Iran is at the centre of political attention. It has the world's second-largest oil reserves and its second-highest gas reserves. It has a long border with Iraq and shares the Shia religion with the majority of the Iraqi people. And its regime arose from the overthrow of the Shah, a well-armed and pivotal U.S. ally. This is hardly a recipe for "softly, softly". Mere reporting is too flimsy to shift the basic paradigms of the powerful in the West, in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When I arrived in Iran in December 2003, before the polarisation between Iran and the West escalated over Tehran's nuclear programme, there was a strong western view that the reformists (popular, goodies) were confronting the conservatives (unpopular, baddies) over social freedom and women's clothes. Everything had to fit that model. In the parliamentary elections of February 2004, a wide selection of newspapers, including The Times of London, seized on the "story" that eight people died in clashes after the results were announced. The interior ministry denied anyone had been killed and no convincing details, much less names, were ever published. The Iranian news agencies made it clear that the clashes - in Firouzabad and Izeh, in south west Iran - had been the result of local factors. By the time the story made the international press, via the wire agencies, it had been fitted into the rivalry between reformers and conservatives and the notion of Iran in crisis. When it reached George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who was due to report to the Senate in Washington that the regime in Tehran was "secure for now", he - perhaps under pressure from mounting criticism over Iraq - indicated that the chance of internal violence remained, so keeping alive the exiles' and U.S. neo-conservatives' hopes of regime change. The reality on the ground was that Iranians were disenchanted with politicians of all hues and no more obsessed with politics than anyone else. Yet the view persisted in the media that, to quote one editor, voters were "naturally reformist."

Hence the shock when Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election by calling for a return to the ideals of the 1979 Revolution and to an economic egalitarianism that the Western paradigm had ignored. To recognise the importance of economic issues would have been to treat the election as a "normal" one, and to contradict the Iran "experts" and U.S. politicians who had predicted a low-turn out and now said the poll was entirely manipulated. I was the only Western reporter who had actually interviewed Ahmadinejad - albeit in a fax questionnaire sent to all the candidates - during an election in which the Western media consensus, perhaps helped by his camp offering interviews on condition that they were positive, had been that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a shoo-in. Victory, it was reported, would result from Mr Rafsanjani's support for rapprochement with the West and for social freedoms.

No time for post mortem

Of course, once Ahmadinejad was elected, the real circus began in such haste there was no time, even had there been the inclination, for any rational media post mortem. American and Israeli officials - and some news editors - questioned the new president's sanity and intelligence. Many "Iran experts" dismissed him as a puppet of fundamentalist clergy, who controlled a monolithic state and government. Former American hostages said Ahmadinejad had been among the organisers of their imprisonment in the Tehran Embassy during the 1979 revolution, encouraging at least one British television reporter-celebrity to pile in with a graphic first-hand account. In fact, as should have been evident from his election win, Ahmadinejad was a more adept politician than his critics hoped. He certainly understood the Iranian people better than most of them.

Right from the start of the campaign, when Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the conservatives' eminence grise, asked Ahmadinejad to withdraw because he was trailing other fundamentalist candidates in the polls, Ahmadinejad insisted he would increase his popularity by criticising Mr Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad never actually mentioned his rival by name in public, but based his whole campaign on attacking corruption and tapping the wide belief, justified or not, that Rafsanjani and his family were living off the fat of the land.

Iran is a land of surprises. Ahmadinejad came to power as a fundamentalist but then ordered sports authorities to lift the ban on women attending top football matches. By then Syast-e Ruz, a newspaper close to the President, had scoffed at election-time rumours that he would segregate men and women on pavements and in cemeteries. Those who knew Ahmadinejad best were least surprised. They said his religion was closer to the organic faith of the mass of Shia Iranians than to the learned ayatollahs. "People have been wrong to see him as someone who wanted strict segregation of the sexes," said Nasser Hadian, politics professor at Tehran University and friend of Ahmadinejad since school.

Ahmadinejad has made a big imprint on the management of Iran's nuclear programme, with commentators around the Arab and Muslim worlds noting a popular warming to his strong assertion of Iran's "right" to enrich uranium. Under previous President Mohammad Khatami, Iran treated its nuclear programme as an affair of realpolitik and diplomacy. Under Ahmadinejad, it quickly became a popular mission, part of his desire to bring "justice" to earth in the name of Shia Islam and to play a nationalist tune that resounded around a proud nation. Ahmadinejad likes popularity as much as any other politician. But this was a challenge to the Western paradigm. Rather like the January 2006 Hamas election victory in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, Ahmadinejad's popularity belied the notion that Western policies commanded majority support in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad's fierce condemnation of Israel early in his presidency further fueled smouldering Western disquiet.

The visit to Tehran in February 2006 of Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, highlighted how Islamists had risen to lead the Palestinian national struggle in the 27 years since Yasser Arafat was one of the first overseas leaders to arrive in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution. Unsurprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei supported Hamas's stand on not recognising Israel as a Jewish State in advance of negotiations to end Israeli occupation. But while many Iranians supported the Palestinians' right to a State, with Jerusalem as its capital, reformists were wary of President Ahmadinejad capitalising on anti-American sentiments in the Arab and Muslim worlds to become a radical international figure. Dangerous times, they felt, required cool heads.

Although Ahmadinejad's questioning of Israel's existence as a Jewish State was universally condemned by European, U.S. and Arab leaders, the reaction in the Arab and Muslim world has been very different. Mohsen Kadivar, a leading Iranian cleric who has in the past been jailed, and whose books are generally banned, told me: "The Muslim world has been radicalised by U.S. foreign policy... and because modernity has brought dependence not independence for Muslim countries." And Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, the former reformist vice-president, said: "Ahmadinejad is a radical, but he is clever in public relations and identifies his target supporters. Anyone who talks about Israel like this is welcomed across the Islamic world."

President Ahmadinejad also scoffed at Israeli and U.S. military might. Many in Tehran believed he and his immediate supporters even welcomed UN sanctions and U.S.-led informal sanctions for giving them an external enemy against whom to mobilise public opinion. The more hardheaded in the regime aren't fooled by the President's dismissal of American military strength. "Iran's leaders are very well aware of the hellish power of the U.S. Air Force," one insider told me privately earlier this year. "Mr Ahmadinejad says we have nothing to fear. But even if there are ways we can hurt America, there are many other ways they can hurt us."

However horrified are the realists in the Iranian political class - aware that Israel had at least 200 nuclear weapons and shocked by the extent of the Israeli destruction of Lebanon - they are reluctant to say so publicly. So where is it all going? Hard facts have a way, sometimes, of confounding both propaganda and inaccurate and malicious reporting. Lessons can be learned, and the truth can be recognised. But one thing is clear. If it comes to a U.S. or U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran, Western readers and listeners are likely to be even worse prepared than they were for the invasion of Iraq.

Reprinted with the permission of the British Journalism Review.
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